By Jennifer H. Cunningham
Fantasia Barrino’s reported suicide attempt last week highlighted the seemingly little-known problem of suicide in the African-American community. The American Idol winner and reality TV star, 26, was released from a North Carolina hospital last week after she overdosed on a cocktail of aspirin and sleeping pills — reportedly after being overwhelmed by media attention and public speculation over her 11-month relationship with married cell phone salesman Antwuan Cook. Cook’s wife, Paula, names Barrino in divorce papers as responsible for the breakdown of the marriage, and believed Barrino and Cook had made sex tapes.
More than 350 African American women took their own lives in 2007, compared with 1,606 of their male counterparts, according to the American Association of Suicidology. Two thousand and seven was the most recent year the information was available. And although African-American women have the lowest rate of suicide of any racial group, they are more likely than African-American men to attempt suicide, the association states.
“Any attempt at suicide is a desperate, desperate cry for help,” said social worker Laverne Williams, director of the Promoting Emotional Wellness and Spirituality Program through the Mental Health Association in New Jersey, and the owner of Laverne Williams Enterprise, LLC, a consulting firm that provides faith-based health education.
The revelation that Cook was married, the release of the divorce papers, the public attention and other “precipitating events,” could have triggered Barrino’s despondency, said Donna Holland Barnes, who teaches suicide risk management at Howard University and is the president and co-founder of the National Organization for People of Color Against Suicide.
“If we have enough events happen to us that life no longer has any meaning–especially when that meaning was based on certain things and that meaning was taken away from us–sometimes it can trigger an attempt, or a wish to die,” Barnes said.
Barrino isn’t the only African American singer who has had a brush with suicide. R&B singer Ginuwine, who recently created a charity to help people with physical and mental health problems, said his father killed himself and that he had attempted suicide. R&B singer Monica’s then-boyfriend, Jarvis Weems, shot himself in front of her 10 years ago. And many believe Donny Hathaway jumped to his death from his 15th floor hotel room in 1979.
Barnes and Williams said there is still a stigma among many in the Black community surrounding mental health problems and getting treatment. Some African-Americans are not socialized to talk about mental health issues, and the sense of shame attached to it, coupled with not being able to talk openly about it, creates “a double stigma,” Barnes said.
African-American males can have an especially hard time seeking help for mental illness, Barnes said. If they go for help, they may not stay in treatment. And if they’re prescribed medication, they may not stay on it.
“They don’t want to be stigmatized by taking medication or seeing somebody,” Barnes said, “because they look at it as a sign of weakness, or a character flaw.”
The notion of wanting to kill oneself can also manifest through reckless activities, like excessive shopping, gambling, promiscuity and substance abuse–even gang-banging, Williams said.
“Suicide itself doesn’t always mean that somebody takes a gun, or a knife to their wrists,” Williams said. “It also means risky behavior.”
Williams, who leads mental health education workshops in minority communities, said she’s heard participants remark that they can pray mental health problems away or that “Black folks don’t commit suicide.”
“Until we start normalizing the fact that it’s okay to go to the psychiatrist or a psychologist, half of the African-American community will still be walking around with emotional challenges,” Williams said. “We’re scratching the surface.”
African-Americans today also face unique pressures following the civil rights movement and the dismantling of segregation, said the Rev. DeForest “Buster” Soaries Jr., senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, NJ. Soaries said achieving levels of success unheard of even a few generations ago, coupled with navigating a society where racism is more subtle, can create mental health stressors for African-Americans.
“It’s been a huge challenge for us,” Soaries said. “There is no historical paradigm. There is no template for doing what we are trying to do.”
Soaries has long supported the idea that there is no conflict between one’s faith and seeking mental health treatment. But, he said historically, many B lack churches have not overtly advocated that its members get help with psychological problems.
“Many churches have not been aggressive in dealing with mental health issues,” Soaries said. “We put so much emphasis on the spiritual, that often, our theology does not make room for professional therapists.”
Officials at the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens have hired an on-staff therapist, who provides counseling and works to link members with a variety of mental health resources. The church plans to train its lay leaders to identify symptoms of mental health problems and host events for its staff to ensure they’re getting help should they need it.
“We need to make mental health treatment proactive,” Soaries said. “We can’t wait until the 11th hour, when we feel like giving up.”
Barnes said those who feel despondent–especially young people–have to realize that their feelings of hopelessness or dejection are only temporary, and that they should speak to someone they trust about their feelings.
“Just talk to somebody,” she said. “Let them know what they’re going through so they can help them get help. Don’t keep it a secret.”